picture displays the author's mother on film camera. she is sitting down and looking directly into the camera.
Original photo taken by Thisuri Perera.

On the twenty-first of February, it was International Mother Language Day. Yet, I barely utter a word in my own tongue anymore.

Merely a phone call to ask my mother if she is doing well, and to make sure that the cat is not spending too much time getting lost in those busy roads near our house. A two-minute conversation to reassure her that I am in fact studying enough, and eating rice whenever I get the chance to, and no, it is never as good as when she cooks it.

Then, a quick “ආදරෙයි” (I love you) to end those brief instants of belonging, followed by weeks of distance, silent as a grave. A distance disguised as absence, sandwiched between her voice abruptly cutting off as I end the call too soon, and the next wave of guilt I must eventually surrender to. It is amidst these conversations that I find solace from the murmurs of the real world, solace that begins to feel anxiously urgent as my tongue begins to give in to fatigue, spending every day aimlessly speaking a language that is not mine. It once used to be a luxury, even a privilege. Nowadays, it is nothing but a curse (though perhaps a useful one). Still, I curse the day I stopped thinking in my own language, for something deep in the well of my spirit shattered for all eternity when I started to translate myself into somebody else’s language.

I wonder how much of oneself is their own mother tongue. I wonder if remembering the past is enough to keep oneself intact. And if so, Mother, remind me of your past. For mine is so drained by our travels across the globe, and to comprehend myself is as nauseous as eating chains left to rust for years: as disappointing as drinking from empty glasses or surrendering to my own fears.

Perhaps all I must do is sit in silence in an empty room and pretend nothing bad has ever happened to me yet. Then, maybe, I can find a purer version of the person I am now, one that I can describe with words that belong to me, instead of moulding a statuette out of my own flesh simply to fit into words that can’t discern the sound of my wrenching heart. Perhaps then, I will finally be able to look at my own reflection in the mirror and not feel an agonising sense of shame. A shame that breaks through every façade I try to paint on my skin, a shame so profound it keeps pouring out of my organs as I repeat words like a child learning to speak. I am a chained-up parrot forced to perform instead of flying freely into the wind. 

And just like a parrot, I too seek flight. Not towards the unknown nor the unwritten, but in the direction of the past, towards all that has been said and has been done. Amidst sunsets from a remote time, and stars that ceased existing before you and I were alive. Towards a time when my mother was the age that I am now, twenty-two and still untouched by the harshness of a love turned sour. When her dreams were so dazzling and rosy, but the English language could never truly appreciate her mind.

Although admitting this is possibly the most agonising of realisations, I too could never truly appreciate her mind. And I will not try to simplify her spirit, by deciphering it through a language she does not care for. Even if I do speak her tongue, our tongue, I do not speak it the way I could have done if we had never left home.

Still, I search for her mind in my own, though our childhoods bear so little resemblance that I struggle to explain my heart in ways she can understand. Even these exact words, which I proudly dedicate to her, I know she will not entirely comprehend.

The only hope that I have is holding onto the tales about her past, those familiar fragments that tell something of her gentle youth. Like a child learning to recognise their own face in a mirror for the very first time, I dip my feet into a life that is not mine – but could have been.

The sky never repeats itself; I wonder if our hearts ever do.